Marshall Crenshaw’s 1982 self-titled debut album is, without a doubt, a pure-pop bona fide masterpiece – one of the most well-crafted, melodic albums in the musical spectrum – and that’s no mere hyperbole, my friends. It is simply one of the most perfect debut albums ever released. Period.
Every song is a sparkling pop gem, overflowing with melodic invention and effervescent joy, yet never failing to rock like crazy when the situation calls for it. You won’t find this many ridiculously-catchy songs all in one place, this side of an old K-Tel compilation. Any one of these twelve “shoulda-been” classics will become lodged in your brain for weeks, if not months or years – probably after only one or two listens. How half the songs, if not all of them, didn’t become the smash hits they so clearly deserved to be is certainly one of music’s more tragic tales. Back in the 1960s, they most assuredly would have been fighting for chart space along with The Beatles and Hollies. And speaking of The Beatles, Crenshaw shows a clear affinity for the style and structure of many Lennon and McCartney songs, as well as a definite 1950s rockabilly influence. He does this, though, without ever sounding like some pale recreation of styles that were 15-25 years in the past, at the time of this recording. Crenshaw is not some mere nostalgia peddler – he just simply takes the best parts of the past and brings them into the future, and by doing so shows how timeless those styles truly are. He could have come out with this album at any time in the past fifty years, probably because he didn’t go for the gimmicky, sterile production techniques that overwhelmed so much of the music throughout the 1980s.
The bespectacled, nerdy-looking Crenshaw (think Buddy Holly, whom he later portrayed in both Peggy Sue Got Married and La Bamba) had played John Lennon in stage productions of Beatlemania during the late-‘70s, so he came by his Beatles influence honestly; though, in fact, his songs reflected more of a Paul McCartney or Brian Wilson pop bent, as well as Holly himself.
After many years of overblown, pretentious Rock (with a capital R), and the nihilistic trappings of late-‘70s punk, Crenshaw’s songs clearly strove to turn back the clock when songwriters wrote 3-minute catchy songs bursting with memorable choruses and lyrics about “girls, girls, girls” (as went the chorus of one of the best songs on the album) – dreaming about them, staring at them, wanting them, but never quite walking off with them.
Crenshaw is a master of writing simplistic, effortless songs that never cross over the line into “dumbed-down stupidity” like so many pop songs do. He makes it look all too easy. If it were this easy, though, everyone would be writing songs this good. Hell, even Crenshaw, himself, has only intermittently written songs this timeless and brilliant in the 28 years since this album came out.
Choosing which songs are the best, from this release, is almost impossible. They are all unbelievably great and extremely tuneful. Certainly though, a few stand out just a little more than others – namely, “There She Goes Again,” “Someday, Someway” (a hit at the time for ‘50s revivalist Robert Gordon), “Mary Anne,” the rockabilly-leaning “The Usual Thing,” and the above-quoted “Girls.” In any one of these gems, Crenshaw shows a clear knack for writing wistful, melodic odes to unrequited love. He captures the teenage-to-early-20s vulnerability of many awkward, young men, but wisely avoids wimpy sentimentality. Only a few other writers since Crenshaw have captured that kind of innocence in their songwriting and singing – namely Michael “Spike” Priggen on his 1987 unjustly-obscure Hello Strangers release, Goodbye, and Allen Clapp’s 2001 Orange Peels pop gem, So Far, which is almost the equal to this album.
Crenshaw also makes the Arthur Alexander classic “Soldier of Love” one of his own. His self-penned and aptly-titled “Rockin’ Around in NYC” and “Cynical Girl” also make a very strong impression. Again, any one of these songs could have and clearly should have been a Top 10 hit back in 1982 (or any other year, for that matter). Crenshaw, unfortunately, had to compete with the then-current synth-heavy New Romantic and New Wave fads, making his music (not to mention his look) seem like an anachronism at the time, which looking back now, it clearly was not. These twelve songs sound just as fresh and timeless as the day they came out, whereas a lot of the hits from that time simply sound like dated relics by pretty-boy poseurs with ridiculous clothes and haircuts.
These are also the kinds of songs that sound great no matter what situation or mood you find yourself in. They make the perfect soundtrack for riding in your car on a warm summer’s day, with the windows rolled down.
What else can I say about this album that hasn’t already been said? It’s perfection personified, and Crenshaw never topped himself, though he made many more great albums in the years to come. This album, though, was the achievement of a lifetime, and the world is a slightly better place because of it. So, roll down the windows of your car, go for a long ride, and turn this timeless album all the way up. They truly don’t come any finer.